Brandon asks about ISBNs and LCCNs

Hey Hugh,
I have a question about how you handled the issues of the ISBN and LCCN.


When it comes to an ISBN, I don’t think I’m ready to drop $125 (for 1) or $250 (for 10) so that my publications can have them but I would like them to be more “official,” and also to apply for an LCCN which you apparently can only receive with an LCCN (unless I have been mistaken in my research).


Did you go the route of accepting Create-Space’s $10 ISBN and do you view any con’s over doing this versus buying your own directly from Bowker? What choice did you make over your imprint on record?


If you have any wider advice about this topic/issue I think alot of members may benefit from the wisdom of Hugh on your blog : ).

Thanks for the question, Brandon. I think this is an important issue for self-published authors, because there is a TON of information and opinion out there. I’m going to disappoint you with my lack of wisdom on the topic, however. I have the opposite of wisdom when it comes to ISBNs. What I have instead is dry experience, which isn’t nearly as exciting, but maybe we can glean something from it.

ISBNs are expensive. I purchased a lot of 10 for $250 back when I was making $300 a WEEK while shelving books. That was a massive investment, and I made it after reading a bunch of posts on a website for aspiring authors. It turns out that almost everything I’d read about ISBNs was wrong.

For WOOL, SHIFT, I, ZOMBIE, HURRICANE, and several other of my works, I use the free ISBN assigned to me by CreateSpace. With that ISBN, WOOL has been on the NYT Bestseller list on three occasions. It appeared in numerous Barnes & Noble bookstores as a print on demand book. It was sold by dozens of independent bookstores. At no point in the work’s success was it helped or harmed by not having an ISBN that I paid money for. Anyone who tells you otherwise is operating on false assumptions, personal bias, outdated thinking/data, or just talking out their butts.

This is telling, I believe: I have only used 5 of the 10 ISBNs I purchased back in 2009. I will never use the other 5, not when I can just allow CreateSpace to assign me one. As for LCCNs (Library of Congress Control Numbers), I really don’t concern myself with my works being registered at the Library of Congress. As long as readers can access them, that’s all that matters to me.

Is any of this wise? Probably not. Maybe you should be purchasing these numbers and concerning yourself with LCCNs. I don’t. And it hasn’t put up a single roadblock or speed bump. I concentrate on the writing and on my customer. I’m not suggesting at all that this approach is the best, only that it can work.

30 responses to “Brandon asks about ISBNs and LCCNs”

  1. I might add that when you publish an ebook on Amazon Kindle, you don’t even need an ISBN. For a print on demand book Createspace assigns ISBN to your book automatically.

  2. Thank you for the great advice- I thought I’d heard it wasn’t necessary to purchase them but I was doubting myself.

  3. Thanks Hugh for the info!! It helps greatly!

  4. Hugh Sensei,

    I wonder whether you use the paid services on Create Space, or did you manage entirely with the free services. I note their covers start at almost $650, a big chunk of change. I also wonder whether you ever looked into Smashwords as a publishing option. (SW provides a free ISBN also.)

    1. I have never liked Smashwords, so I don’t know much about that service. I have used Create Space for editing and layout, and they are amazing. As good as any major publisher. You get what you pay for, and then some.

  5. I may go through SW to get into ibookstore what specifically did you not like if I may ask?

    1. Control. Uploading. These days, you can upload an epub, which is great. It used to be a Meatgrinder converter, which sucked. I’d go sit in a library, use a Mac, and upload it yourself. You’ll get paid direct deposit from Apple, have access to the iBookstore dashboard, control your price much faster, etc.

      1. Interesting how many choices are available. I went smashwords + amazon for the same reason…control. With smashwords my novel was shotgunned to a large list of resellers with a single dashboard. Amazon’s select program would have socketed me into amazon and nothing else. The only drawback I see to smash at this point is the lack of progress between amazon and smash in getting things out there. That said, I’d rather deal with two instead of 5 or 10 or whatever number of different distributors.

        As to upload, the meatgrinder is still there and works a lot better than it used to. I still had to format for Amazon, but both were relatively easy to do.

        I’m not sure what advantage there really truly is with “Select”. At this point my novel has sold about equal numbers via Amazon and Smash. Now if i would only put down my captain procrastinator hat and get on the marketing a bit more…hmmm…perhaps tomorrow fer that. :-D

        I DO like that smash provides the ISBN free of charge.


  6. Funny! I had to read the entire post before I realized what LCCN was. So, I never considered registering with the Library of Congress.

    I, personally, purchased 10 ISBNs, but I’m realizing that I didn’t really need to use as many as I’ve used. There is so much information out there re: this and many blog posts contradict each other. I’m getting ready to publish the second in a series, and I’m pretty sure I’ll only use two ISBNs this time: one for the paperback and one for eBook. Although, I seem to remember iTunes requiring a completely separate ISBN from the rest of my eBooks. Am I dreaming this? I’ll have to look into that.

    1. iTunes used to require an ISBN. They no longer do. And you can use the free CS ISBN for your ebooks. Whether or not that’s kosher or legal is irrelevant. You can. It works. And your book can go on to be a NYT bestseller and get shelved in major chains. So why not do it?

      These numbers are for legacy systems that are no longer relevant. The Amazon ASIN is a far more important number these days.

  7. Hugh-
    Did you use create space early when you just got done with digital publishing or was it after things took off and you already had a success on your hands?


  8. An ISBN is how you order a book from your small local bookshop. Because that’s the only place you can get a book. It’s not like there’s some magical network you can just magically connect to and find every book in the universe and just order it and have it delivered to your door or magically appear on some “tricorder” you carry around just to read books.


    Seriously, back the 80s when I was a kid, I relied on a very small bookshop that probably didn’t carry more than 500 current bestsellers. The owner was wonderful, but that was just the market. He had to make a living. I remember asking about obscure books and having the owner look up titles and authors in this huge book and ordered them. It took weeks. Sometimes the distributor needed to order them. For a kid in a small town in the 1980s, it was amazing. That’s what the ISBN was for.

    The world has changed. ISBNs are part of that past and they served well, but it’s just not the same world anymore. They’re useless for ebooks and if you’re with Createspace, well, if that kid wants your book, that free Createspace ISBN will hook up that indie bookstore with it just like it did 30 years ago and will do so just as well as coughing up $125 to Bowker. It’s about where to get the book. That’s all it’s ever been about.

    1. Katie,

      That’s really interesting. I wouldn’t have thought about that angle of the ISBN. Most literature and arguments about them online don’t even discuss the fact that they were used in that manner, or how, after reading your post, obviously obsolete they are for ebooks.


    2. No self respecting indie bookstore will ever order a Createpace book.

      $250 for 10 ISBNs, $300 for a good cover and $800 for good editing. Those are my primary expenses on my first novel. It will be available on Amazon and Kindle using their services. I cannot afford to cut off my nose to spite my face. It comes down to how much do you believe in yourself, in your book, on your writing career? As an author do you really only want your book available in one store?

      Check out and for more ideas about the new age of publishing.

      1. Not true. Dozens of indie bookshops and even Barnes and Noble bookstores carried the WOOL OMNIBUS when it was a print-on-demand book from CreateSpace.

        (Powell’s was one of the bookshops that carried WOOL. It was on their New Release shelf and one of their editor’s picks for 2012. All with a CreateSpace ISBN. The reason many of these misnomers persist is because no one challenges them. Most authors sell to the highest bidder before they discover how far their self-published novel can go.)

  9. It’s worth remembering that all an ISBN is is a unique ID for use in databases. They have no other function and contain no information (handwave handwave handwave*). It doesn’t matter whether you get your own block of ISBNs or just take whatever Createspace assigns from the blocks that they have bought.

    * actually they encode language/country of origin, publisher, and size of publisher. The presence of this encoding instead of just treating them as opaque IDs is one of the reasons why we’re running out and switching to Bookland – meaningful data is necessarily less compact than an ID, and the inefficiency *really* matters when you’ve only got a few digits to play with.

  10. From my personal experience as a new indie publisher, I don’t need to purchase ISBN or LCCN.

    There are some self-publishing e-book services that don’t require that authors get an ISBN for their e-book. However, some publishing experts recommend that authors get their own ISBN for each unique version of their e-book despite using a service. This could help prevent unapproved third party access to an e-book.

    Some e-book publishing services like Smashwords and BookBaby (that I use) have provided ISBNs for author-customers as part of their book conversion packages. For example, BookBaby provides only one ISBN that covers multiple e-book formats.

    Smashwords provides two ISBNS: one for the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) format conversion and one that covers multiple other e-book formats. ISBNs provided by Smashwords list the customer as the author and Smashwords as the distributor. Smashwords, however, does allow authors to bring their own ISBNs as purchased directly from Bowker.

    Hope I was of help. Great blog by the way, that I follow once and a while

    Thanks Hugh, for putting up those good articles and posts!


  11. Hugh,

    Two questions everyone should ask themselves about this (with their business hat on):

    A: If ISBN’s are obsolete, why does Creatspace, SW, etc still use them at all?

    B: If someone else owns/controls the ISBN assigned to my book, who controls the metadata attached to that book?

    Hint: Question A relates to Question B.

    Just sayin,

    1. If Createspace issues the ISBN, does that mean they own or control the ISBN? Do you know? Do you have some sense of an ulterior motive in companies issuing ISBNs? Obviously it hasn’t hurt Hugh Howey financially.

      1. I don’t want to hijack Hugh’s blog here, J. So I’ll try to be brief.

        Createspace is Amazon. CS does not give out free ISBN’s out of the goodness of their heart, there is something in it for them. Some bookstores will refuse to carry your book if its published by CS. They feel it aids their competition. Not necessarily my view, but it’s their choice. ISBN’s = Metadata. If the ISBN leads nowhere else but back to Amazon…? Don’t ignore print. It’s a huge market. Just because the ISBN system is an old system doesn’t mean it’s still not in use or will continue to be for many years to come. If you have an ISBN from CS is was bought by them and they control the metadata entered into the system the stores utilize to order your book. Guess where ALL that data points too? Is the cost of an ISBN worth losing control of all that? Your decision.

        The ISBN is more than a number on the back of the book. But that’s just my opinion. I have a post about it somewhere on my blog if you want to hear more of my thoughts on the subject.

        Hugh, first time I’ve disagreed with you on something! :)

        1. That’s interesting. Things aren’t always what they seem. I hope HH will weigh in. His judgment would be useful. I’ll have a look at your blog too.

        2. Isn’t the reason it leads back to Createspace that this is where a retailer or distributor would obtain the book from?

          1. Katie,

            There are other places they could get your book. If you use another source to produce your book, such as Lightning Source or a small press, you can have your metadata lead back to them, or your own website store, or an overseas distributor, OR all of them at once. That way the person doing the ordering has an option if they cant get past their own Amazon issue. If CS owns your ISBN your metadata will lead back to one place: Amazon. And theres nothing you can do to change that.

            You cant even see what metadata they’ve entered unless you access the catolog and take a look. What if some Amazon worker bee accidently pasted in the wrong info? They may have mistakenly made your SF thriller a cozy romance for all you know.

            If you want to be a true self-publisher I think you should controll EVERY aspect of the process. Hugh doesnt like SW due to a lack of control. I can understand that. Why give up control of your metadata?

            Yesterday I disagreed with Hugh here on ISBN’s and then again regarding fanfic over at TPV. Thats twice in one day! :) Sorry Hugh. Still a huge fan tho!

  12. Almost forgot,

    The ISBN on my copy of WOOL is 978-1-4767-3511-5.

    The ISBN for my first novel, Closure, is 978-1-938825-0-3-3

    Again, just sayin. :)

  13. […] Brandon asks about ISBNs and LCCNs | Hugh Howey […]

  14. This is a great post and even better thread of comments. I am right here – about to epub my first novel and trying to decide if I sink the money into an ISBN.

    Based on what I’ve read, I agree that ISBN’s were developed for a different age. The thing is there is still a lot of book distribution and purchasing built on that infrastructure. This leads me to believe that the ISBN is a good thing if I want my widest possible distribution.

    @Randall, I think you make a valid point regarding giving up control, as an Indie a large part of what I like is control. I also realize that I’m running a business and I have to weigh pros and cons. Sure someone could fat-finger the meta data at the distributor, but there’s a thousand places along the chain where someone (including me) could fat-finger data. My thought is that it’s a low risk that can be fixed with the help of a web interface or customer service rep. Also, I am in a place where I need to be really wise about where I can make the investments in my book with my limited funds.

    @Hugh, I have Wool 1-5, bought off Amazon as individual copies. I don’t see ISBNs in them. Is that because you chose not to put them in the text, you didn’t have them for those editions, or am I just missing them?

    1. I don’t use ISBNs for the ebooks. The print editions use the Createspace-assigned ISBNs.

  15. Hi, Hugh.

    You said that for WOOL you used the free ISBN assigned by CreateSpace. That means that you can’t publish your book somewhere else. Now WOOL has hardcover edition and it’s published by Simon & Schuster. How did you do that? As I know to get a new ISBN is not enough? That’s what stopping me from using CS ISNB.

    1. There are no such limitations. That ISBN only applies to the CreateSpace version. You can upload the same book to Lightning Source and have them print copies with a different ISBN.

      The ISBN is taken way too seriously. It’s a standard adopted mostly for physical bookstore retailers. Books don’t need them at all. You can print and sell books without an ISBN if you like. There are no laws covering any of this. None. Just rules and regulations with various retailers. For instance, Barnes & Noble will not carry your title unless it has a unique ISBN, the code is a certain size, the price is printed on the back, yadda yadda. All this means is that B&N has certain requirements for their products. It doesn’t mean you “can’t publish” your work somewhere else.

      Again: ISBNs have no bearing on legality. They are overblown in importance. I don’t know why everyone freaks out about them, but I suggest using the free variety and not worrying about it.

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